WordPress Plugins vs Widgets – What’s The Difference?

The themes, plugins, and widgets are the stars when it comes to WordPress. They are the most common words we are hearing every day. I bet most of us know how to deal with plugins and widgets, but do we really know the thin difference that makes them separate tools?

WordPress Plugins vs Widgets – What’s The Difference?

If you ask me, I will say that plugins and widgets often work in the same way and sometimes I get stuck on choosing either a widget or a plugin to do a specific thing for me.

Well, let’s discover together how each one works and why they are different.

What is a plugin?

A plugin is a software that can be downloaded independently and which adds a new function to your blog or website. Let’s say you just launched a site, bought a theme and it does not allow you to use ad banners. You’ll next look for a plugin that can do that, install it to your WordPress back-end and it will provide you the necessary settings for placing advertisements on your site.

A plugin must be downloaded or purchased (whether it is free or premium), installed to your dashboard and customized (it’s your job that intervenes here). It comes with a bunch of settings that you can use to your liking. For instance, where exactly you can place your ads, what size should they have, how should they look, monetization facts etc.

There are thousands (and I’m not kidding when I’m saying thousands) of free plugins. You just have to search for them and pick one. I challenge you to think of anything your WordPress site might need and you’ll see that there are always some that can help you. Most of the times, you’ll find at least 2 or 3 that can serve the same purpose.

The most plugins work in the back-end and they are not really visible to your users. I mean, depending on each plugin, people can be more or less aware that you are using it. Plugins are built to make your site stronger and more adapted to the never-ending technology’s trends and changes.

What is a widget?

A widget is a sort of plugin as well, but a smaller one. I like to call it a tiny tool or an extension. That’s because it works with WordPress the same way an add-on works with an internet browser. The only difference here is that the widget can be added to the front-end of your site. It is visible to the users and they interact with it.

For instance, if you want your site to show certain buttons (Follow Me button), the latest comments or an author box, widgets can do it for you.

A widget is itself derived from a plugin, but it comes integrated with WordPress. WordPress comes with a specific number of default widgets that can vary (some themes can come with a bunch of default widgets too). Also, for some widgets, you need to install plugins that can add them to your dashboard.

Most of the widgets come with their plugins, so for using certain widgets that are not on the default list, you have to install a plugin that will provide you the wanted widget.

Widgets can be easier to find and to manage than a plugin. You can find them in your dashboard’s menu -> Appearance -> Widgets. You don’t need to install them separately.

Widgets can be dragged and dropped, so just take the ones you want to show up on your site and drag them to the desired locations. They mostly appear in the sidebars and in the widgetized areas of a theme.

It’s very important to have a well-organized sidebar because a lot of user interaction happens here. A sidebar somehow summarizes your whole site’s content and receives a lot of engagement from the user. It basically invites them to explore other pages and posts from your site.

How do plugins and widgets work?

The first and most obvious difference is that plugins are rarely visible to the public, as they work mostly in the back-end, but they always improve your site’s interface. On the other hand, a widget is a representation of a plugin that is placed somewhere on the site, visible to everyone, and it can be easily managed from your dashboard without having to install anything.

Plugins

Okay, so let’s take a plugin and see how it works.

I took WP Product Review as an example, which is a free plugin that lets you create reviews and rates for various products on your site. You can review them yourself or let your users give them rates and scores.

So, to install a plugin, go to WP dashboard and click on Plugins ->> Add New.

Install a plugin

Now, you have two options: you either upload the plugin’s ZIP file if you downloaded it from wp.org in the first place or you type its name in the right search bar.

Upload the plugin

Click on Install Now and then activate the plugin. There are the same steps for every plugin.

After installing it, you’ll notice a new item in the menu, called Product Review. Click on it and do the settings. Sometimes, the plugins won’t appear separately in the menu, so you’ll have to look for them in the Plugins category. Look after them there too. After doing the customizations, be ready to use the plugin.

You’ll see that, from now on, each of your posts will come with the option of a review. Click on Yes and the plugin will list you below all the fields you’ll need to fill in for creating a review post.

Plugin Use

After completing all the fields dedicated to the product, your post will become a review. Your users can rate it as well in comments. The rating option comes automatically with the plugin. So, from now on, all your review posts will look something like this.

Plugin Use

Widgets

With widgets, it’s a lot easier, but they will never bring such a complex functionality as plugins do. Widgets are important, as they add nice and useful extensions, but they don’t come with such complexity and features. A widget is actually a mini-plugin, which is provided by WordPress or by a specific plugin. All the widgets are very easily to set up.

Let’s see how a widget works.

So go to Appearance ->> Widgets in your WordPress menu.

Set up widgets

After clicking on Widgets, here’s what you will see:

Set up widgets

To add one of them to your site’s front-end, all you have to do is to drag it to the Widget Area in the right column.

I circled those two widgets because they weren’t there by default, but they came with the WP Product Review plugin.

NOTE: Plugins can come with built-in widgets as they are more complex softwares, but widgets work separately. Since I installed the review option on my website, apart from the Recent Posts, Recent Comments etc., the plugin gives me now the option to use Latest Products and Top Products as well because WP Product Review plugin was created that way – to provide this feature too. People who created it assumed that I would like to highlight my products to my users.

So, another difference is that a plugin can come with widgets, while a widget is indeed a mini-plugin, but works independently.

Getting back to how to put the widgets on the front-end… drag them to the Widgets Area, arrange their order and positions, set your preferences and they will simply appear on your site.

To customize a widget is just too simple. You can only write a number or mark a box and that would be the whole customization.

Customize a widget

Save every change and preview your page to see how they look like on your site.

This is how my widgets look on my testing site. By the way, I’m using Twenty Fifteen theme, so everything shows up depending on its design and its flexibility when it comes to features and settings.

Widget preview

Pros and Cons

Plugins’ pros 🙂
  • Plugins solve all the issues you have and bring your site all the necessary features. I mean, if you want to add something to your site – anything – there’s always a plugin that can do it for you.
  • They’re easy to install and to manage. As you could see earlier, to install and set up a plugin takes only a few minutes.
  • Without plugins, WordPress websites wouldn’t exist. Yes, that’s right, plugins do everything for us. You can’t run a successful site without plugins’ support. There’s no such thing.
  • They are lightweight, which means that they won’t affect your site in any fashion. Of course, installing way too many or the wrong ones can bring up another discussion.
Plugins’ cons 🙁
  • There are plugins that can damage your site’s performance because they are not compatible with your theme or don’t work properly. Some of them, if not updated for a long time, can be vulnerable to hacks and bugs. Hence, your site can be in danger. You must be careful, do the research and test their performance before using them. To pick a bad plugin is a rare thing, but why not be cautious?
  • Although there are thousands of free WordPress plugins around the web, there are also great plugins that you will have to pay for. It’s very likely that a free plugin won’t offer you all the features you’re looking for and you’ll have to switch to a paid one. Anyway, I guarantee for most of the free ones.
Widgets’ pros 🙂
  • They’re ready to appear on your site in 2-3 clicks.
  • You don’t need to install anything to use them on your site. Unless the ones you need are provided by a specific plugin.
  • They’re indispensable. I didn’t see any site that doesn’t use widgets.
  • Besides the default widgets already provided by WordPress, you can also add a new widget to your site by just copying its code to your posts or pages. Some just work like that.
Widgets’ cons 🙁
  • They are necessary, but they can’t do a plugin’s job. They won’t ever bring your site such a complexity.
  • As you could see before, the custom widgets – others than the ones coming by default – work only if you install the plugin. For instance, to have a Top Rated Products widget, you need to install a plugin that actually does the ratings. The custom widgets come with the plugins. And only then you can set them up to appear on your site.
Both are very important

There’s no life beyond plugins and widgets. That’s for sure. You can’t have a great site without using them. They both bring new features and functionality to your site, so both should play a very important role in your life.

For a personal site or for a blog made just for fun, I think you can afford not to use any, even though I find it hard to believe you won’t ever need to add something new or modern at some point. But, for a website that’s meant to serve a big business or company’s interests, it’s impossible not to use plugins and widgets.

In a Nutshell

Plugins and widgets may be different, but they both play the main role and bring out awesome features for your site.

A plugin is a software that you can install to your WordPress back-end and customize it to your liking. There are thousands of plugins out here (free and premium) and they can do anything for you. Want a better SEO for your posts? Try a plugin. Want to send newsletters? Try a plugin. Want to give your users the chance to rate your products? There’s always a plugin for that too.

A widget is a plugin itself, but a smaller one. I like to call it an extension. Widgets come by default with WordPress and with the theme you’re using. Also, most of the custom ones are provided by plugins, so after you installed the plugin, it automatically adds new widgets to your Widgets Area. They are super easy to set up.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Adelina,

    Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing plugin vs widget. Recently I have installed WPForms Lite plugin. This is one of my favorite. You should give it a try.

    https://wordpress.org/plugins/wpforms-lite/

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